Sunday, August 31, 2008

Questions of style

It took a long time to get rid of the History Department snobbery concerning biography but in time I have come to realize that an individual person is one of the best angles available for getting an informative look on an era. This notwithstanding all those well known and legitimate enough reservations - you probably can never really capture an individual experience and so all text will inevitably be misleading and inaccurate thus often raising subjectivity to a second degree. So there is no straight line from an individual life to its cultural and temporal context, but then there is none available for any kind of historical study - which is not only a loss, but sometimes a significant gain. I am currently in the middle of Antonia Fraser's life of Marie Antoinette, which is competent enough, I'm sure at places even a brilliant case for the defence though her approach has never been greatly to my taste. There is one player permanently out of the scene, namely the 99% of French society whose appearance would perhaps go a long distance in explaining the personal tragedy of this largely blameless but very foolish person. Of course, I have in any case very little sympathy for the aristocracy of the ancien regimé, those decadent painted dolls that, yes, were more a concequence than the cause of the universal awfulness and injustice of the time - but other contemporary tragedies were even worse and unimaginably more numerous.

Anyway, this book surely is the one Sophie Coppola read. When her film came out it didn't receive a very warm welcome from the critics. I suppose the general verdict was that it had some style but no substance and gravitas which it should have had given its famous and portentous historical context. Well, I thought it was brilliant. I have some difficulties in seeing film as a great art form, but it surely best achieves greatness when it gets the form right, never mind the content (as far as we can meaningfully make the distinction, which is mostly not very far). That is how my sense of esthetics works: form can be the substance, a frivolous approach can lead to a great virtuosity of skill and thus also to deep meaningfullness. In the film this strange era is approached from a very eccentric, unreal angle (which is also how the study of history fundamentally works, even if the academia is never as free as art, odd how ashamed historians are of their craft's near relatives...) - and illuminated in a very understated way. It is a very stylish film and thus a very good film. The famous shot of the pair of Nike runners among Marie Antoinette's shoe collection was not frivolous postmodernism for me but a striking statement about our universal experience of being in time (not to mention some more obvious similarities between two epochs of decadence and over concumption). This is to overstate the case, but overstatement is surely a legitimate reading here. An excellent film indeed, unique almost in its capability to express with a sophisticated, light touch certain aspects of history that academic research would have great difficulties in expressing.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

So be merry, so be dead

For my fortieth birthday this summer I wished for a reprint of Paul Fussell's classic The Great War and Modern Memory. It was such a remarkable, even shattering experience to encounter it shortly after I had begun my studies in Helsinki in the late 80's. Of course, I already then found the idea of Liberal England strangely sympathetic and was aware of its strange death during the nightmares of the 20th century - but Fussell brought that theme to life in a spectacular fashion. I still largely accept his view on the importance of the WW1 to modern experience.

This is not to say that these concepts - like the "strange death" of liberal England - would not be outside impositions, they are, but currently we don't have any other means to bring coherance and life to history which is the challenge that a book like The Great War and Modern Memory so brilliantly meets. It is only too bad that most modern historians seem largely unaware that there even is a problem here - perhaps that is due to the unfortunate side effects of postmodernism. In comparison to the current crew of mainstream historians literary history like it was written by people like Fussell or Bergonzi is sheer intellectual pleasure, such wide range and such intellectual confidence is very rarely seen any more.

Inspired by Fussell, I'm am going round through these by now familiar landscapes. I am currently in the middle of Vera Brittain's classic "Testament of Youth", and no doubt "Goodbye to All That", "Undertones of War" and Sassoon's memoirs will follow later. Strange how this particular loss of innocence seems to echo through the decades for so many people and into so many different circumstances. Of course, it was a very narrow section of people, not very representative in any sense, but for them history had devised a trap the like of which has not often been seen.

They were the fruit of the high, unreal civilization of liberal England, and it is not easy not to be moved by images such as Vera Brittain's visit in July 1914 to the public school of her beloved brother and her gifted fiance - and watching them march in the Officer's Training Corps in the middle of that brilliantly beautiful summer. Surely a strange quietness in the blue sky and in the windless trees there, boys' cries muffled by the still, unmoving air... Much of the modern cynicism, pessimism and despair originated in the mad slaughter of these innocents.

In undoubtedly a very disproportionate way I identified exceptionally intensely with that experience, feeling the loss of a very protected innocence myself and having also a sense of bitter suffering and mute, helpless endurance. Of all the various figures, poets and writers, it is then Charles Sorley that stood out most painfully. His eighteen to my eighteen was a humiliating contrast. I had barely been able to formulate the need for a coherent voice, a coherent person - and there he was in his brilliant letters: a sane, sensitive, balanced, proportionate, authorititave voice. Everything I so burningly was not.

Strangely history echoes through our lives, our experiences. I was of course overly romantic, not making justice to the actual occurrances, the actual persons. But even now Sorley cannot but feel such a rounded, brilliant figure, such loss to the world, his eighteen being easily more than a match to my forty even though the competition is slightly more even now... What would he have done, what would he have written - such irreplaceable loss. Or Rosenberg, or Owen. Not representative people at all, but in their unrepresentativeness surely very crucial to our modern experience. Unmoored as we are, no longer having faith in coherance and progress, in art being the way forward for the whole civilization - lost in no-man's-land. They point, illuminate the way how we ended up there.